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Beef up freshman experience, EDP report recommends

The Education Design Project (EDP) has issued a preliminary report that recommends that MIT reinvigorate the freshman experience.

"In the first few months of life at MIT, students begin to develop the study skills and intellectual perspectives that will determine their course through MIT," the report says. "The freshman year is the foundation upon which an MIT education is built. Regular inspection and maintenance of that foundation must be a top priority for the Institute."

The EDP, a subcommittee of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP), was formed in 1998 by the faculty and the Office of the Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education (ODSUE) in the wake of the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning's recommendation that education programs be reevaluated. The report was presented and discussed at CUP's summer retreat in August, and members are basing their 1999-2000 agenda on it.

An implementation committee has been formed, with representatives from CUP and ODSUE to move along initiatives for change in the undergraduate program, particularly the freshman year. Some initiatives will be overseen by CUP and others by the Dean's Office, as appropriate.

"The implementation committee doesn't really have a chair, but might be described better as being co-chaired by [Dean] Rosalind Williams, [CUP Chair and Professor] Suzanne Flynn and me," said Kim Vandiver, the dean for undergraduate research and director of the Edgerton Center and UROP.

The Education Design Project was co-chaired by Professors Stephen Benton of media arts and sciences and Kip Hodges of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences. It consisted of seven faculty and two undergraduates. They met frequently from October 1998 until May 1999. Focus group meetings were conducted with alumni/ae and students, a broad cross-section of department representatives, freshman advisors, freshman lecturers, and academic services staff members.


The report recommends that these principles be observed in changing the freshman program:

  • First-year students should all have a comprehensive "hands-on" learning experience.
  • Academic rigor must be maintained, but improved methods for teaching freshman subjects in a more integrative way should be pursued.
  • The faculty and administration should create a program that blends core subjects and project-based learning experiences.

"We encourage the Institute to conduct several curricular experiments in order to better inform a final design," the report says. "These experiments include: pilot offerings of 'mini-courses' specially geared toward providing brief introductions to engineering practice; a pilot offering of a project-based subject designed to showcase the value of interdisciplinary collaboration in solving complex problems; and a pilot offering of laboratory-practice subjects focusing on problems in specific disciplines."

The committee found that both students and faculty value academic rigor and oppose changes that might "dumb down" the freshman year. The committee received few complaints from students about pace and pressure.

The report made seven recommendations:

  • Develop and publicize an institutional strategy for the freshman year.
  • Define an improved freshman year curriculum.
  • Sanction experimental freshman mini-courses.
  • Sanction an experimental freshman mission.
  • Sanction trial laboratory subjects for freshmen.
  • Establish a process of routine review and maintenance of the general Institute requirements.
  • Make educational assessment an Institute priority.

Professor Hodges views the report as the first salvo in an extended campaign.

"The freshman year should be viewed as a matter of strategic interest for the Institute by making it known that we intend to develop a freshman program of unparalleled quality," he said. "We could send the clearest possible message to prospective students that we take undergraduate education very seriously. By following through with the creation of a better freshman experience, we would set the stage for a higher quality of learning in the sophomore through junior years.

"Success in this endeavor will require collaboration at all levels of the MIT community," Professor Hodges continued. "The senior administration must make it clear that they endorse initiatives to improve on the freshman-year experience through programmatic changes, and that they are committed to redeploying current resources and developing new resources to support those changes. ODSUE and larger academic units, like the School of Science, already have started working toward a new era by establishing an atmosphere conducive to the evolution of freshman programs, and by coordinating the efforts of individual departments. The departments must clearly establish freshman-year education as a matter of priority, and they must encourage and reward the efforts of their faculty in that regard.

"Faculty members are, of course, key to the success of any educational initiative, and we are blessed with a talent pool filled with inspired and creative educators," Professor Hodges said. "We can only hope that they redouble their efforts to help entering students become powerful learners. Instructors and teaching asistants, both graduate and undergraduate, currently play an important and sometimes underappreciated role in undergraduate education, and we must draw heavily on their experiences and ideas as we move forward.

"Finally, it is up to the students to make themselves heard as a force for positive change. They are an amazingly talented and intelligent group whose potential demands nothing less than the best education we can give them."

Besides Professors Benton and Hodges, faculty members of the EDP when the report was written were Professors Rick Danheiser of chemistry, Jonathan Gruber of economics, Steven Hall of aeronautics and astronautics, Daniel Kleppner of physics and Kim Vandiver of ocean engineering, recently named the dean for undergraduate research. Students on the committee were Sarah L. McDougal, a senior in civil and environmental engineering, and Abigail Pelcyger, a junior in chemical engineering. Marsha Orent of the Office of Academic Services provided staff support.

The entire report is available on line.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 6, 1999.

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